The Peruvian city of Cusco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site perched at 3,400 metres over 11,000 feet in elevation. Visitors can feel the effects of the altitude within a few hours of arrival and the Andean people have chewed Coca leaves and drank Coca tea for centuries to combat the effects of altitude.
Altitude sickness comes in three basic forms: acute mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary edema, and high-altitude cerebral edema. Acute mountain sickness is the most common, as it affects more than 50 percent of people who ascend higher than 2,400 metres or 8,000 feet. It’s caused by the lower levels of oxygen in the air at high elevations; your lungs can’t take in as much oxygen as they’re used to and your heart and lungs have to work harder to keep your blood oxygenated. Symptoms of acute mountain sickness include dizziness, fatigue, nausea, headaches and difficulty sleeping. Acute mountain sickness usually goes away within a few days as your body naturally adjusts, as long as you remain well hydrated and stay at the same altitude until the symptoms pass.
Among the ways people have traditionally relieved the symptoms of mild altitude sickness is by chewing or making tea with coca leaves. Many workers in Central and South America, especially those in the Andes in Peru, who spend time at high altitudes use coca leaves to alleviate the discomfort.
The leaves of the coca plant contain alkaloids which–when extracted chemically–are the source for cocaine base. However, the amount of coca alkaloid in the raw leaves is small and non-addictive. A cup of coca tea prepared from one gram of coca leaves contains approximately 4.2 mg of organic coca alkaloids. These alkaloids increase energy levels, much the same as a cup of coffee or tea, very useful if you are heading out trekking or sight-seeing!
While there is limited scientific evidence on whether or not the leaves actually help, many travelers and hikers have found them effective for treating altitude symptoms or ‘Soroche.’ We asked our Alpaca trekkers and each one has a different answer, but they all enjoy participating in the Peruvian tradition of coca tea in the morning, especially when its delivered to their tent as their wake up call by an amazing Alpaca guide.
Let us know – did the coca leaves help you when you visited Peru?